Italy on Saturday moved to significantly unwind coronavirus-related movement restrictions, announcing plans to allow travel across the country as well as to and from abroad beginning June 3.
Such changes would restore many of the freedoms that were in place before Italy became the epicenter for the virus’s spread in Europe. Italy is under intense economic pressure to reopen its doors and revive its tourism sector, which normally accounts for 13 percent of its GDP.
But the country is also gambling that it can contain any new outbreaks that might come with freer travel.
Since early March, the movement of Italians has been severely restricted, as part of one of the most rigid lockdowns in Europe. Under the current restrictions, people in the country are not allowed to leave their region, and leisure travelers are prohibited from coming to Italy. Anybody arriving in the country for urgent business reasons is required to self-isolate for 14 days.
In an evening address, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said that people arriving from other E.U. states would not be subject to quarantine.
“This will create the conditions for tourism recovery,” he said.
The continent’s external borders are closed to nonessential travelers until at least mid-June – keeping Italy, initially, off the table as a travel option for Americans. Foreign minister Luigi Di Maio indicated that Italy’s eased restrictions would apply to those already in the European Union, writing on Facebook that from June 3 it will be possible “to move within E.U. states.”
Even by loosening the restrictions, Italy will have a hard time fully restoring its summer tourism season. Airlines have dramatically cut back on routes to the country, and many people who had planned trips to Italy have already canceled. Countries with more controlled outbreaks, like Greece and Portugal, are trying to pitch themselves as safe travel destinations for northern Europeans trying to escape to the beach.
Still, Italy is moving quickly to ease its restrictions in part because many of its regional governments, worried about the economic toll, have agitated for a more rapid timetable. On May 4, Italy took the first steps to emerge from lockdown, allowing factories and construction projects to resume. The government has since pushed up the opening date for restaurants – from early June to May 18. Retail stores and museums will also restart May 18.
“The epidemiological situation in Italy is holding,” said Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at the University of Milan, who noted that the last two weeks haven’t shown any worrying upticks in the transmission of the virus. “With some caution, it is reasonable to imagine a reopening.”
The stringent lockdown Italy imposed for eight weeks succeeded in slowing the pace at which the virus was spreading. The country is discovering roughly 1,000 new coronavirus cases daily, compared with 6,000 at the peak in late March. Only 10 percent of the country’s intensive care beds are occupied by coronavirus patients, compared with more than 50 percent more than a month ago.
The country is sure to pay a severe economic price, because of restrictions necessitated by the virus and because it came to a standstill for so long. Italy’s economy is expected to contract this year by more than 9 percent, its deepest recession in history. Italy’s Confcommercio business association said that drop in consumption will mainly hit a few sectors – particularly, hotels and restaurants.
(c) 2020, The Washington Post · Chico Harlan